Shake it up

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As you may recall, dear reader, last time I wrote I was kind of in a funk. I can’t say I’m completely out of that funk (such is the nature of depression), but I am not the type of person to sit and stew about it for long. The writing of my last column hit me at a particularly low time, and the ebbs and flows of this disease dictate that some days are better than others.

That said, there are always things that I can force myself to do that will drag me out of it, and once I make a conscious effort (and can find the energy – the big D is famous for zapping that), I can often make a go of things. This week I decided that a little change might do me good. And no, I’m not moving to Tahiti or something. I like to think, sometimes too much, and organizing things in my mind and on paper does worlds of good for me. I find that, even when I am at my lowest, I have enough energy to lay there and just think. As long as I’m thinking about things that are productive, I can gets the wheels turning.

I started out by thinking about the sort of things that are happening when life is going its best. I was able to make a list that included regular exercise, comfortable finances, plenty of water (and some coffee), people that I love around me, music I can really get into, something to do with my hands and my brain, and a minimum of clutter. Whew – tackling these things when they all seem to be a mess is kind of heady, but I at least had a loose outline of the things that would improve my situation.

From that point, my next step was to figure out if I was doing each thing to the point where I was happy with it (spoiler: nope), and what I would need to do to make it happen. For example, exercise is kind of my Waterloo, but I know it’s important. That said, it doesn’t take much for me to decide that it isn’t a priority. I thought of myself as a nighttime exerciser, but it was rare that I felt like exercising after a long day. If anything at all was wrong with my life, I would skip it. The idea of exercising in the morning filled me with resistance, but I figured I would try it. It turns out that when I did, I was finished with my workout before I was fully awake anyway, and I didn’t have it hanging over my head all day. It made me more energetic and motivated on those days as well. I wouldn’t have come to that realization if I hadn’t decided to change things up. Changing and improving the little things can often snowball into a big improvement, and it has in this case.

Maybe you don’t have depression (and I hope you don’t – it’s not all that fun, really). Even if you are fortunate not to have it, everyone feels like things are a little out of control from time to time. Life throws a lot more at us these days that we are really equipped to handle without a lot of practice, and sometimes the wheels kind of fall off. Don’t be afraid to step back, assess what’s most important, and focus on how to manifest more of that in your life. Just the thought exercise will help a little, and any additional effort in that direction is sure to make a difference.

Attacking the Hard Questions

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I looked at my to-do list this morning and I sighed deeply. Today was going to be a busy day. Fitting this long list of items into a typical day was probably just short of impossible, but many of the things that I am working on are deadline-driven and non-negotiable.

Perhaps I wouldn’t have felt so bad in looking at the list itself, which was lengthy and challenging but perhaps not insurmountable. The issue is that, as I look around my office and my life, there are many things that are not on my list that are nonetheless clamoring for decisions to be made about them and actions to be taken on them, and they are taking up a lot of my mental real estate and nagging me when I try to focus.

I’m tired. I’m just really, really exhausted mentally.

Maybe it seems to be the case more today because I am also trying to cut back on coffee, which I have in rather large amounts each morning. Maybe it’s the fact that with everything going on at work I end up being the one opening the office with no one else scheduled for a few hours every morning, making me chief, cook and bottle washer until everyone else arrives. Who knows what it is, but I feel like I need a change.

When I have days like this, I really have to devote a large portion of my time, to-do list be darned, to sitting down and eliminating ambiguity about anything that gives me pause. Not just nagging things that need to be done (like clothes taken to charity or the cleaners or borrowed items returned to the lender), but the big stuff, too. How do I really feel about my dad getting remarried? Why don’t I want to return a particular phone call? Why do I feel so reluctant to make good choices about my health and my time? Or, one that’s even scarier and more complex, what am I afraid of?

I don’t like feeling like this, but I suppose it happens to everyone once in a while. I do find that, the more I can sort through the flashing lights of my mind and shut them off or put them on snooze, the more I can focus confidently and know that I am doing the right thing at the right time. Hand in hand with the clarity, though, is an impetus to act on things that are uncomfortable in some way, be it something that might involve being brutally honest with someone about something unhappy, or simply something at which I’m afraid to fail (which is a pretty common thing with me).

Once in a while, even if we don’t love the idea, it is well worth it to confront the demons that are impairing our ability to focus on our daily demands. Fortunately, the time it takes to do this (and experience the fallout) too will pass, and letting it fester isn’t good for your psyche. If you are sensing some reluctance in yourself to jump into your daily grind, take even a few minutes to identify what the trouble is. It may make a world of difference.

The Contentment Conundrum

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Many of my readers ask me where my inspiration to write comes from, or where I get my ideas. When they do, I tend to feel like the Emperor once he realizes the truth about his new clothes. I know there are many writers who sit down daily and make themselves write because they truly endeavor to be writers. For me, writing was just a natural extension of the rest of my life that stuck around after the party. The topics that I write about, in the interest of true confession, are simply the topic that is top of mind for me at the time.

But what, if anything, happens when nothing is really top of mind?

I don’t know whether it’s the promise of pleasant weather, several good turns at the office, or fact that I am finally making headway on projects at home, but this morning when I sat down to compose this column, I was only aware of how contented I felt. Because most of my Pollyanna topics are drawn from making lemonade from life’s myriad lemons, when I feel this way, I find myself without a topic. Not without inspiration, as being contented somehow begets its own inspiration, but without a topic in which to find a silver lining.

I would wish it on everyone I know to feel this way from time to time. It is not that my life is perfect by any stretch of the imagination; there is still more bill than money at the end of the pay period, there is still plenty to do that beckons me when I try to relax, but I tend to treasure times like these when I can make peace with the capricious nature of life and decide that, at the end of the day, it really is ok. I have much to be grateful for, and that seems to be enough for me.

Unfortunately, it most likely makes for a rather boring column. It’s difficult to be a Pollyanna without anything to pollyanna about, and I wouldn’t deign to try to convince you that you have nothing to worry about or wish were different than it is. It just makes for rather lackluster reading, I imagine.

It also begs the question, what is it that makes one content? For me, there has to be a measure of good luck and good fortune, either figuratively or literally, but that is only because I am not a blackbelt in making peace with my life. There are some people who have managed to find contentment even when an outsider might think they have nothing to feel contented about.

The key piece is attitude. Our perception of things can make or break us. Every situation, even the most dire, can often have a positive spin. Everything that happens to you gives you a decision to make about how you will handle it and how you will react. Perhaps that is the secret. Until I find the answer, I’ll keep exercising my contentment muscle and looking for the silver lining.

In Memoriam

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If you’re like me, dear reader, you are looking forward this weekend to the unofficial start of summer. I, too, am looking forward to the ever-rarer days when we can give our office a day off at the same time. However, over the years, Memorial Day has evolved in the public’s mind from a day of remembrance for those who fell in active duty to our country to a government-accepted “free” day off, a day of hot dogs and swimming and camping trips.

Though military life wasn’t a defining factor of my childhood, I was born on the naval base in Groton, Connecticut while my father was a submariner there. My grandfather was in the National Guard, my brother was in the Coast Guard. Though my grandfather had to stay on the homefront because he was the family’s principal breadwinner in lieu of his disabled father, his brothers served in WWII. My uncle was in the Korean War. Fortunately, many of my loved ones are still with us, but I know that there are many who volunteered to serve our country, or were called to duty to defend us when we needed them, who aren’t with us any longer. Nearly any cemetery, from small family plots to Arlington National, has become the final resting place of a serviceman, whether they were killed during active duty or passed after subjecting themselves to unimaginable dangers protecting us from harm.

It is for these people that we observe Memorial Day.

It is no small thing to agree to serve your country in the military. Military life demands being away from friends and loved ones, learning the unnatural act of killing another human if need be, desensitizing yourself to the horrors of seeing comrades killed or injured (a skill that is nearly impossible for most to learn fully), and rigorous adherence to a chain of command and a regimented existence. Surely no one but those who have served, whether actively in a combat zone or with the constant specter of being sent to active battle hanging over their head, could truly know what the experience is like.

There are many days out of the year that commemorate other people and activities, from the awesome to the frivolous, but I hope that you will take time this weekend to think about the sacrifices of those who put their personal freedom aside to defend the freedoms of all Americans. Even if you are a conscientious or compulsory objector, the sacrifices of these individuals is no doubt something worth honoring and remembering. Somehow, that makes the less solemn activities we’ll enjoy this weekend even more meaningful.

The Best Seats in the House

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One of the joys of working for a theater (and there are a few) is the opportunity to see a variety of wonderful presentations and performances that I would normally have to drive a substantial distance or travel the world to see. The cinematic performances that we offer at Cinema Capitol this year have been one of the highlights of 2015 for me.

Art and I used to drive to Syracuse and back to attend the Metropolitan Opera cinematic offerings there before Cinema Capitol opened its doors. As we were discussing with one of our patrons only yesterday, it is hard to describe the quality and experience offered by these broadcasts. Rather than being a relatively static presentation of a play or opera from a single vantage point, these cinematic tours-de-force offer the equivalent of the best seats in the house. Through wrap-around features and interviews during intermission to camera angles that bring you up close and personal with performers, composers, directors, and production staff, there is no single live ticket that you could by that would give you the sight lines and intimacy afforded by this type of cinema.

The venues that offer the performances use them as an audience development tool. They are essentially making an investment in new technology and ways of presenting works to audiences that provides fertile ground for the growth of new audiences, be they younger audiences or audiences that have acquired a new interest and appreciation for a particular art form. This dedication to the future of the arts helps to ensure that the arts will be there to appreciate far into the future. At the Capitol, even though we are a much smaller organization, we believe strongly in the principle of audience development.

Many people will call the Capitol to ask about the performances that we offer from far-flung places, and sound somehow disappointed that the performance is not somehow miraculously offered live on stage here at the Capitol. There are several reasons that this would be an impossibility.

The first is that, in our community, the range that patrons will pay for tickets is relatively minimal. Even the rock-bottom prices that we are committed to offering for such shows as this weekend’s production of To Kill a Mockingbird by the National Players get raised eyebrows. These shows are certainly not inexpensive to bring to our area, especially when entire companies are brought from across the country or overseas, housed in hotels and offered food and amenities that are in their contracts. This cost would be prohibitive for a theatre with the budget of the Capitol. If you were to attend a Royal Opera House production on their own turf, you would pay upwards of ₤220.00 for similar seating equivalents and sight lines (and that’s in British pounds; in American dollars the exchange would be approximately $335.00 at press time). You can imagine what that cost would entail if we were to ship them here.

Secondly, providing prop storage and dressing room space for a company the size of even the smallest opera would be beyond the current capabilities of the Capitol’s physical plant. Unless they are very close to a major metropolitan area, I know of very few cities with populations of 34,000 that would be able to accommodate such a show, with few exceptions.

Thirdly, the star power of these productions is also out of our reach. Through these productions, you can see stars like Placido Domingo and Natalia Osipova perform live. These are not chances that come every day, especially for the cost of $17 or less.

We offer these programs to our community to broaden horizons, and to offer world-class programming in our small city at a reasonable cost. We have two shining examples of cinematic performances coming in the next 6 weeks: the English National Opera’s production of Gilbert & Sullivan’s Pirates of Penzance, directed by Mike Leigh (director of Mr. Turner, which we offered on film in April, adn the fabulous G&S filmTopsy Turvy) on June 3, 6 & 7 ($12 for adults, $10 for Capitol Friends and students); and the Royal Ballet Live’s enchanting production of La Fille Mal Gardee (The Wayward Girl), June 10 & 14 ($17 for adults, $15 for Capitol Friends and students). Before thinking that they are inferior to a live performance, make sure you attend one. You may be surprised to discover what the world has to offer in your own backyard.

The Birthday Girl

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As I write this, I am sitting under a heat bonnet at Unique Salon getting a brand new ‘do. Karin has been after me for months to do some fun color; she knows me pretty well by now, and know that in my heart I’ve wanted to do it for a long time. Finally, on my birthday, I’ve decided to take her up on it and do something fun.

I hear from people all the time who don’t want a big deal made of their birthdays, who let them go by like they are just another day. I don’t know whether it is about getting old or being made a fuss of, but I do know that I am just the opposite. My birthday is an excuse for big doin’s, as they say, and I arrive at April 30th every year ready to jump out of bed and take it on.

My day usually begins with a brief perusal of my Facebook birthday wishes (Facebook is quite good for reminding people that their friends are celebrating [or not celebrating, as it were] a birthday), then the long-standing Pierce tradition, since before I met Art and even before I was born: the presentation of a milkshake in bed. Much more exciting than breakfast in bed! I figure that, since I’ll never be a mother and there is no Auntie’s day, I get one day of the year all to myself, to celebrate my existence and find an excuse to do things that I’ve wanted to do but couldn’t justify.

My day today includes a stop at Unique Salon, a massage at Zensations, lunch with my mother, several personal fun errands I had been putting off because they didn’t seem adult enough, a final installment of yard work to eliminate a particularly prickly bramble bush, birthday dinner someplace yet to be determined, and watching Alfred Hitchcock’s Frenzy at Cinema Capitol. Oh, and probably several more checks of Facebook birthday wishes!

This year I turn the big 3-5, an age that might concern the faint of heart who are just arriving there (though all of you dear readers who have passed this milestone know that it’s just a number in the great scheme of things). There is something about the middle 30s that makes youngsters re-assess where they are in life. Though I am not afraid to age, I have always been well aware of my rate of accomplishment. While I know I won’t light the world afire with my spectacular achievements, I sometimes lament to Art that I haven’t necessarily achieved the things that my rosy-cheeked early 20s would have had me do. Fortunately, he is there to remind me that not only have I been key in making great strides at the Capitol and for the city, I still have a good number of years ahead of me to do great things. There are many parts of my life worth celebrating. I’m a great Auntie and cat companion, I am funny and affable, I can ride horses “better than [I] think” according to my riding instructor, I can knit up a storm and sew fairly well. I am special, unique, and definitely worth celebrating one day a year.

Whether you celebrate your birthday or not, I’m sure there are aspects of your life that warrant celebration, even if it is of the quiet sort. Your job, the family you helped create, your marriage, your skills at gardening, cooking, or any other area. You are most likely famous among your family or circle of friends for something if you think about it. This year I challenge you to find something to celebrate about yourself. Even if you celebrate quietly, by yourself, without telling anyone. I’ll blow out a candle for you.

The Death (?) of a Trumpet Vine

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Ah, spring. The season with the most promise for new ideas and projects, a time for recommitting ourselves to our outdoor endeavors and making things fresh and new. It’s also a time for growing and improving. Sometimes that growing and improving involves a little bit of plant carnage.

I was fortunate to be off from work yesterday, not particularly because I didn’t have to work (which is nice, too), but because my day off actually corresponded with nice weather, which probably occurs about as often as Halley’s Comet. When this rarest of events occurs, I have a protocol in which I review my to-do list, taking into account activities which need to be done outdoors, then I have to evaluate those results based on which tasks could get out of hand the most quickly. In this case, my obvious priority was the trumpet vine.

The saga of the trumpet vine is a long one. Art and I will have been married 10 years this November, and before that he took care of his mother, who was ill, for several years. She had planted the trumpet vine during a time when she was active in doing things around the house, training it around a metal pole and gradually letting the early stems grow so robust that they were like small trees wrapped around each other. Unfortunately, even shortly before Art and I met, she was unable to keep it in check. Because of this, the trumpet vine, lovely but supremely invasive, had free rein over our house. It ran roughshod over our lawn, crept into the foundation, choked other plants, and generally wreaked substantial havoc in our little biosphere.

I am ashamed to say it (because I am not a murderous person), but I have plotted to kill the vine for several years. The only thing keeping me from doing so was the herculean effort that it was going to involve. Not only was there the vine-cum-tree to deal with, but also the myriad runners that were travelling through the ground day by day, cropping up in strange and faraway places. I knew it would be a multi-part process with lots of difficult chopping and digging. Because of this, my perfectionist brain routinely felt overwhelmed.

Something has changed in me this year, however. After a very trying early 2015, I have decided that nothing in life can really be all-or-nothing, and I woke up yesterday eager to start the process of dismantling the vine. After running a few errands in the morning, I took myself to the garage and armed myself for battle. Surprisingly, I completed “Phase 1″ (the elimination of the largest part of the vine) in only two hours. This supposedly epic task, which I had placed on hold (aside from routine maintenance) for nearly ten years, had taken me the same amount of time as a long afternoon nap.

As I stood back to admire my handiwork, a sense of calm came over me. I knew that the war was not yet won, and that there would be other days when I fought back the vine’s insurgents elsewhere in the yard, but I had won for the present. If I can continue to spend as much time doing as I do worrying and planning, I might make progress yet.